This project began, for me, in Kerry Downey’s studio in Greenpoint several years ago. I had come to see the fragments of a video she was still editing at the time, which have since become “To Do List.” The work is a collaboration between Kerry, Joanna Seitz and Jen Rosenblit shot in an abandoned industrial office space in mid-town Manhattan. Kerry provided props, a series of material provocations, Joanna did the cinematography, and Jen danced. It was, and is, a beautiful video – full of rage and desire and color. And refusal.
It confronted me with the relation between the body and the windowsill/cubicle/wall/filthy carpet. It accused me: there is an aporia in the way I/we/you think about the body as the unstable object of social practice. By social practice I do not mean projects that try to put “art” into “life” or projects that strive to be effective towards some extra-aesthetic goal. I mean artworks whose very fabric is social and whose existence as work depends on some tenuous relationship between people. Kerry and I began collaborating because we shared a commitment to this more expansive spectrum of practices. A spectrum that admits to the social nature of office cubicles and to the relationships between bodies that they seek to engender and prohibit.
“To Do List” also rejects a certain kind of heroism that pervades current social practice discourse. Heroism, as I understand it, is the fantasy of some entirely self-present actor, some individual able to save other people from their oppression or alienation or ignorance through a stroke of illuminating genius, either aesthetic or political. This fantasy is dangerous because it elides one of psychoanalytic feminism’s most important theoretical contributions: subjects are never self-present. We come into being through the recognition of others. We understand our own oppression, alienation, and ignorance in relation to others. Others build the limits of our imagination. In order to widen it again we must re-draw the world, and this is not is a solitary task, not ever.
So: if there is a primary text for this strange thing that we are calling an exhibition for lack of any more honest organizing term, those first fragments of “To Do List” are that text for me. Jen fucking with every carefully planned line of perspective Kerry drew and Joanna framed. The many referents for failure and vulnerability I/we use here are, in part, my/our attempts to make language serve this impulse.
Failure is Kerry’s term, although I have stubbornly insisted upon its centrality throughout our work. It keeps trying to slip out of this conversation, as it slips out of many conversations around social practice. When we started, maybe we knew what we meant: failure as a challenge to heroism, failure as a challenge to self-mastery, failure as that intolerable excess of experience that we so often, and vainly, try to recuperate by calling it part of the process towards eventual success. Failure as ruin – not planned obsolescence but ruin, architectures so degraded that their purpose is lost to us.
Vulnerability is a term borrowed from Judith Butler’s work on war. She offers many valuable insights into what political activism informed by feminism could look like, but for this project what is important is her definition of ethics, via Levinas, as the ability to respond to another; ethics as responsibility. Thus, an ethico-political actor is obliged to remain vulnerable, open enough to the other that she may respond to him. It seems to me that social practice is, in some cases, trying to stage this kind of vulnerability, this open-ness to the other that Butler would argue is the ground for ethics. Vulnerability also, and crucially, implies the possibility of harm to the subject, of trauma, and of the resulting failure to respond. There is no guarantee of safety for the ethical subject, in other words.
Perhaps a trace of certainty about these definitions remain, but more than anything I think the terms “failure” and “vulnerability” served to help us choose people with which to collaborate. They are buried in each of the projects that have resulted from our long process together. Their refusal of heroism and self-mastery is somewhere in the logic of the works presented here, but we did not reach a group consensus about their importance or their meaning, and each project does many things beyond articulate a relationship to them.
One of the first things to surface over the course of our meetings was a fundamental tension between the group and the individual. Artists were invited, after all, on the strength of their own work as well as their willingness to be implicated in such an unusual and extended process. This tension raised a number of important questions: should we start with a common goal, and move towards the exhibition together through consensus? Should we start from individual processes and work towards each other with some recognition of the difference between each person’s position and practice? If there is not clear narrative provided by the curatorial frame, and instead only a set of terms chosen because they systematically fall out of discourse around social practice, do we begin with definition? In whose language shall we speak these definitions, if that is the indeed the first task of making a show and providing common access to its groundwork? Kerry has said, elsewhere, that in our meetings we failed to levitate socially, and I could not agree more.
I am reminded of one moment when the group re-enacted a game, a wish for magic that I remember vividly from my own adolescence, Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board. We gathered around a body lying prone on EFA’s gallery floor laughing, perhaps, at our own playfulness, and tried to levitate that body with our fingertips. Someone admitted what many were thinking – this was always a game about desire. It was always first of all an excuse to kneel close and lay hands on the other. Magic was a pretext for this longing, and it did not matter if the body failed to levitate.
Natasha Marie Llorens is an independent curator and writer based in New York. Recent projects include “Ajar” at Reverse Gallery, in Brooklyn, and “The Echo of an Address” with Kerry Downey, at Columbia University. She teaches art history and theory at The Cooper Union and curating at The New School, both in New York. She is a graduate of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College and a Ph.D. candidate in art history at Columbia University. Her research is focused on violence and representation in the 1970s and 1980s.
Photo Credit: Bruce Nauman, Failing to Levitate in the Studio, 1966